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Ask the Expert: What’s More Important – Story or Character?

Question: What’s more important—story or character?

That’s like asking: What’s more important—your heart or your lungs?

What’s important about all art, in all forms of expression, is not the way the various components separate but how they synthesize one another. Scientists take things apart; artists put them together.

Shattering phenomena into their diverse components, the process that lies at the heart of the analytical mindset, surely occupies an important place in our lives. Art, however, is not that place. What’s significant in writing is not the way story and character diverge but how they meet.

Analysis is not for artists but for critics; consider the first four letters of the word.

My pal Prof. Andrew Horton from the University of Oklahoma has written a splendid book called Writing the Character Centered Screenplay. With all due respect to Andy, I would call it Writing the Good Screenplay.  What value has any narrative if its center is not character, in particular its lead character, the protagonist? Note that the great classics of dramatic narratives from their inception on the ancient Greek stage through Shakespeare and into the contemporary era are named more often than not for their protagonist: Agamemnon, Oedipus Rex, Lysistrata, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, Richard III, ad infinitum.

This is every bit as true for many worthy films:  Milk, The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, Thelma and Louise, Annie Hall, The Graduate, Citizen Kane and scores—hundreds!—of others.

There are no good stories without strong characters; and no character can be strong outside the context of a well turned story. What, after all, is a character except the sum total of the actions she takes and the dialogue she speaks?

That’s why I caution writers against planning their characters too fully in advance of creating their story. Some screenwriting educators preach that prior to starting their scripts it’s useful for writers to sketch out detailed descriptions of the characters. What kind of candy bar would she be if she were a candy bar? What kind of tree would she be if she were a tree? What kind of car would she drive (even though she doesn’t drive a car in the movie)? What was her childhood like? What kind of schools did she go to? What’s her favorite color?

If writers find this useful: God bless them. Nevertheless, I say it’s dilettantism, indeed, destructive to worthy writing. It suggests that characters can live outside the world of the story. Rather than create characters, writers should discover them, as in dis-cover, taking away the cover and finding the characters in the same way that Michelangelo ‘found’ his statue David by chipping away at the marble block from which he emerged, removing those parts that were not David.

David was already there inside that rock. Likewise, your characters are already there, in a sense, waiting to be discovered. I’ve never known a writer who wasn’t surprised by twists and turns in the story, and in lines of dialogue apparently invented by the characters themselves.

Neil Simon visited my screenwriting class at UCLA to discuss comedy. Having Neil Simon discuss comedy is like being a student in seminary and having a Q&A with God. I asked Mr. Simon if he laughs at his own jokes. He said, “Sure I do, the first time I hear them.” In other words, it’s as if the characters invent the dialogue on their own, even if it’s the writer who gets paid.

What’s not to like about that?

A successful writer I know who works with a partner told me that someone asked him: Which one of you writes the characters and which one writes the story?

What’s significant about story and character, once again, is not their separate identities, since separately there aren’t any, but the way they enhance and expand each other, the ways they walk hand in hand together.

Note: If you’re in Los Angeles, take advantage of the rare opportunity to take an on-campus UCLA workshop with Professor Walter – offered this summer for both non-UCLA and UCLA students. More info on the class is available here.

Richard Walter

Richard Walter is a celebrated storytelling guru, movie industry expert, and longtime chairman of UCLA’s legendary graduate program in screenwriting. A screenwriter and published novelist, his latest book, Essentials of Screenwriting, is available in stores now. Professor Walter lectures throughout North America and the world and serves as a court authorized expert in intellectual property litigation. For more information and to order the new Essentials of Screenwriting, visit Contact Professor Walter at if you would like to subscribe to his monthly screenwriting tips newsletter.

Richard Walter Copyright © 2012